He is an iconic figure of Indian classical music. Legendary flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia has earned global recognition and acclaim for himself and his instrument, the side-blown bamboo flute. Now at the age of 80, the bansuri-player can look back on a long and glorious career.
Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia
Over decades of performance, he has dazzled audiences in India and abroad and won countless awards and honours.
In India, he has collaborated with several leading Indian musicians like santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma and played alongside Carnatic musicians like the giant M. Balamuralikrishna and the legendary violinists Lalgudi Jayaraman and TN Krishnan. He has also composed music for films.
His collaborations with western musicians have helped increase understanding and appreciation of Indian musical traditions abroad. His collaborations with renowned artistes John McLaughlin, Ken Lauber and Jan Gabarek are well known. He played on the Beatles creation 'The Inner Light', which was written by George Harrison.
In fact, Harrison had a long and fruitful collaboration with Harrison--during the 1970s, they were touring and recording together extensively. Their friendship became the stuff of legend and they even stayed in each other's houses.
His name evokes respect in music circles around the world and his concerts draw crowds and rave reviews.
So, after all this, does he feel there is anything more to be achieved, any bridge left to be crossed? Chaurasia replies: "Of course, I have so much left to do! I am still a student, still learning my art. In fact, I don't feel like a man of 80 but an 18-year-old student. Classical music is an ocean and there is so much more to learn, experiment and create...it is an unending quest. And I am a young student in this art."
It is an art that he has been zealously learning and practising with dedication since he was a teenager. Unlike so many other top musicians of today, he was not born into a musical family. His father was a professional wrestler and Chaurasia learnt stenography and wrestling at his wish. Then he began vocal lessons in Hindustani classical music, from vocalist Raja Ram and later gravitated to flute lessons under Bholanath, then a respected artiste in Varanasi.
In the late 1950s, he performed for AIR, Cuttack. Later, he relocated to Mumbai and performed onstage concerts as well as for the Hindi film industry. An important period of learning was when he came under the tutelage of well-known surbahar player Annapurna Devi, daughter of the famed Baba Allauddin Khan. It was she who made him turn to playing the flute with the left hand. And that left-handed playing of the flute has stayed with him ever since.
The flute is his magnificent obsession. He tells us: "There is something divine about this instrument. It was what Lord Krishna played. It is so beautifully simple and yet it can produce such exquisite music."
Indeed, he will always be remembered for taking a simple folk instrument and making it an integral part of Hindustani classical music.
He adds: "When I pick up my flute to play it becomes the world to me. Nothing else matters but making the best music I can from it." It is this single-minded devotion to his instrument, which has been an inspiration to many other flautists. When asked what advice he has for aspiring musicians, he repeats: "I am a student myself still learning, still wanting to acquire more knowledge. What advice can I give?"
When we persist, he says he can only give a general comment: "Total concentration and dedication are essential to succeed in any field."
However, he would be happy to see more and more youngsters take to Indian classical music. When we ask him about his opinion regarding the efforts of several Indian musicians who are trying to make classical music an integral part of the curriculum in schools, he says it is a good idea: "If children are exposed to classical music it will be an asset to them all their life. So, exposure to music is good from a young age. They cannot, and need not all become performers but a basic knowledge will enrich their personality and mind."
Since he is in a south Indian city for a felicitation, we ask him about his encounters with Carnatic music. "I have had a very enjoyable time performing with Carnatic musicians. I have great respect for the Carnatic music form. I have had memorable collaborations and jugalbandis with southern greats like Lalgudi Jayaram and Balamuralikrishna among others. I still recall how Balamuralikrishna and I responded to each other's music onstage. It was such an enriching experience."
Hariprasad Chaurasia will be felicitated at Ravindra Bharati, Hyderabad, today on the occasion of his 80th birthday. There will be a performance by flautist and composer Nagaraju Talluri and others. The programme titled Guruvandanam is being organised by Surmandal and Department of Culture and Tourism, Government of Telangana. Surmandal is a well-known cultural organisation contributing to the field of art and culture since several decades.